Exclusive Interview | Getachew Reda on regional, security issues
A lot has happened since the passing of the late PM Meles Zenawi last August.
While the Eritrean President conspicuously refrained from seizing the opportunity to give a lengthy lecture as would be expected, its ally, Al-Shabaab, hailed it as a game-changer. Though, shortly after, it was driven out of the strategic Kismayou port and other strongholds by AMISOM. A process of forming/strengthening administrative structures in Southern and Central Somalia has been set in motion.
The Sudans signed, last September in Addis Ababa, the “Cooperative Agreements”, which deemed another milestone in their prospect for peaceful neighborhood. Ethiopia signed a special status agreement with Kenya, while the Nairobi set the timetable for an election feared to be more violent than the 2007 one.
The short-lived peace talk with ONLF, last September, was also another post-Meles event.
Amidst these developments, Tewodros Adhanom was appointed as Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister, contrary to the expectation of pundits.
To shed light on these developments, I have interviewed Getachew Reda, who is known for his frequent media appearances to present government position and expert opinion on political and foreign relations matters.
Getachew Reda was until recently Director General of the Public Diplomacy and Communications Directorate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, now appointed as Press and Publicity State Minister at the Office of the Prime Minister.
Read the transcription of the interview below. (the words in brackets [ ] are my insertions intended to clarify)
ON THE NEW MINISTER
Daniel Berhane: The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry got a new chief last November, with the apportionment Minister Tewodros Adhanom. Though Tewodros is lauded as “the best Health Minister in the word” by former US Pres. Bush and had been elected to chair the Board of Directors of Global Fund, it is uncertain if he has sufficient acquaintance with the issues and personalities relevant to the Horn of Africa and the emerging economic powers, like China and India. Wouldn’t this impair his performance?
Leading the successful implementation of the health policies of Ethiopia was largely about commitment to addressing the primary enemy of the country: Poverty. It was not necessarily about mastery of this discipline or that discipline. If one’s discipline helped, it is only of secondary importance–a remote one at that.
Similarly, leading the Foreign Ministry of Ethiopia is about fighting the same enemy in a slightly different platform. It does not require a PhD in international relations to fight poverty. What is required is a full understanding of the challenges we face and a commitment and a quality leadership equal to the challenges. In that score, the new Minister is as good a leader as he was where he had been before his latest assignment.
ON THE SUDANS
Daniel Berhane: The late PM Meles Zenawi was praised as an even-handed negotiator of the two Sudans. If that is still Ethiopia’s policy, how come the “Cooperative Agreements” signed last September in Addis Ababa are more favorable to Khartoum than to South Sudan in several economic issues (such as; oil revenue sharing, the issue of pre-2010 foreign debts,etc)?
I don’t see how the terms of the agreement are more favorable to the north than to the south. These issues were part of the transitional arrangements stipulated under the CPA [Comprehensive Peace Agreements 2005] although the specific details were to be worked out at a later stage on the basis of negotiations that understandably have dragged on longer than we expected. Negotiation – as opposed to fighting it out – is about give and take and about avoiding a zero-sum game.
That Prime Minister Meles was even-handed does not in any way mean that he used to do the math for the two sides. His role – as is the role of any Ethiopian leader – is one of facilitating their negotiations in the spirit of mutual respect and mutual interest. On that, both parties are in agreement. But I will not be surprised if disinterested third parties perceive otherwise.
Daniel Berhane: Some observers claim that Southern Somalia has become under de-facto protectorate of Ethiopia and Kenya. In relation to that, they cite the recently signed ‘Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Grand Stabilization plan (GSP) for South and Central Somalia’ as prejudicial to the political sovereignty of the government in Mogadishu.
This is an idle talk that has no factual basis at all. Ethiopia is in Somalia with the support of the government of Somalia. Kenya is there under the AMISOM mission [African Mission to Somalia]. The Grand Stabilization Plan is about helping Somalia’s security apparatus being integrated; about inclusive political dialogue among clans; it is about ensuring that Al-Shabaab is no more a threat; it is about helping Somalis at all levels establish representative political institutions.
Through it all, the Federal Government in Mogadishu is the only legitimate authority in Somalia and there is that understanding and conviction on the part of Ethiopia. The Somali government agrees this is the case. There are no misgivings that we know of. After all the GSP is about creating the conducive environment for the Government in Mogadishu to extend its writ all over Somalia. That could not be undermining but solidifying authority.
Daniel Berhane: Some Somalian media claimed that Ethiopian PM Hailemariam Desalegn made a remark, during his
travel to Nairobi in November, supporting “Kenya’s direct control of the process for setting up administrations in Jubba and Gedo regions”. There are also reports that Ethiopia as well is dictating the process. Do not such interventions undermine the viability and legitimacy of the local administrations?
That is absolutely false. Nothing more, nothing less. Ethiopia is not in the business of bullying others.
Daniel Berhane: Is Ethiopia worried in case the Ogaden clan controls regional administrations in Southern Somalia, given the likelihood of alliance with the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) that operates in the Somali region of Ethiopia?
The only thing that prevents members of the Ogaden clan in Ethiopia from supporting the ONLF is the fact that they don’t see any benefit in coddling a murderous and terrorist organization that had been killing them and destroying whatever infrastructure the government is expanding in the region. They see firsthand the development that is happening in their region and they are the ones who are standing guard against any destructive moves by terrorist elements from any side.
Ethiopian Somalis are benefiting from the development endeavors underway in this country of theirs. That Ethiopian Somalis are as much dedicated to the causes of peace and development as the rest of Ethiopians has nothing to do with what happens across the border and everything to do with what happens in their side of the border. But I would not be surprised if Ethiopian Somalis wish that their brothers on the other side of the border could enjoy these benefits too.
Daniel Berhane: Speaking of ONLF, I have a hypothesis that the peace talk last September was intended to preclude a possible surprise attack from ONLF, while Ethiopia was undergoing a leadership transition. Otherwise, why would Addis Ababa start talks at such busy time, knowing the talks would boost ONLF’s weakened stature?
Your hypothesis is just a hypothesis – in fact, an outrageous one. Apparently, you are one of those people who consider the ONLF to have some kind of military presence in the Somali region [of Ethiopia]. It doesn’t. To the extent that there is any military presence of sorts, it is the half a dozen or so retired senior officers of [former Somalia President] Siad Barre hiding in Asmara. In fact, some of their comrades think that they are now virtually hostages of president Isaias [Afeworki]. That is besides the point, though.
What is interesting about your hypothesis is that it conveniently leaves out the fact that the negotiations had been going on for a long time with the full knowledge of Prime Minister Meles. There was no need for a hasty decision to rekindle negotiations, let alone doing so for the reasons you allege they were done. That would presuppose that the ONLF was so potent militarily that it could even threaten the transition. Even [ONLF chief] Admiral Osman would not go that far.
More importantly though, the transition, whatever your superlatives about it, was a wholly civilian affair and, as you’d agree, went without a hitch. Assuming that there was a potential threat from anywhere – forget ONLF – it would be the national defense forces – not the [ruling party] EPRDF Council which would have to be mobilized to contain the threat. There was no such drama because none of the potential spoilers are foolish enough to go for an exercise in futility.
In conclusion, the government’s decision to negotiate with the remnants of the ONLF had never been about the military capabilities of the organization which had always been patchy at best anyway. Rather it was about closing the chapter of conflict in the region once and for all. The people of the region deserve all the peace in the world.
Daniel Berhane: Ethiopia and Kenya recently signed a special status agreement. Is there anything substantive outcome to be expected from it?
Getachew Reda: Our bilateral relations have been very good. They will now be even better.
Daniel Berhane: There are reports suggesting that “if the outcome of the March 2013 election is violent, there is high potential for mass atrocities including genocide in Kenya, with groups and individuals likely to take up arms”. And, this fear is widely shared by diplomats, analysts and even some Kenyan politicians. What is Ethiopia doing to prepare for a probable spill over effect, as some tribes live in both sides of the border?
Our hope and expectation is that the elections in Kenya will be peaceful and democratic. And we believe the Kenyans have come a long way in addressing the challenges they faced during the last election. They have a culture of resolving their differences amicably. That is a plus. But this does not mean they have to rest on their laurels, we, Ethiopians, for example, do not rest on our laurels as far as the coming local elections are concerned.
None of us in Africa are out of the woods yet. But our problems are not insurmountable. Our brothers in Kenya fully understand the benefits of peace and stability. They have shown [in 2007] that they can set aside their differences in the interest of their people. I am confident that the forthcoming elections will be peaceful. As for what Ethiopia can do to help, this is a very hypothetical question.
To the extent that we are concerned about any spill over effect, it is in the sense of what both sides can benefit from their closer engagement on various areas.
Daniel Berhane: The perception is that the Eritrean government didn’t try to capitalize on the passing of the late PM Meles Zenawi – through propaganda and/or military aggression or acts of terror. Do you share that? What could be the rationale?
I do not agree for at least two reasons. To start with, the regime in Asmara has never – not for a single day – stopped its efforts to destabilize the region. It has been working around the clock to do what it does best: exporting violence and terror. That we did not have a public announcement of cases of sabotage here and there is by no means proof of any let up on the part of the Asmara regime. The regime still continues to organize terror missions which, to President Isaias’ chagrin, often fail to make it to their targets. That they are caught before they can strike is a function of the vigilance of Ethiopians and the meticulous work of our security forces, not for lack of effort on Eritrea’s side.
The propaganda campaign is as venomous as ever. Was it effective? Of course not. The regime’s Armageddon scenario runs counter to the reality on the ground in Ethiopia. If anything, it backfires on the regime.It is funny when you have a regime that has never held elections loudly criticizing others for being less democratic than they claim to be. I am not sure if President Isaias actually believes his oft-repeated predictions, as it were, about ‘imminent demise of Woyane’ [the Ethiopian government]. Though, his operatives appear to take Isaias’s wish list of disaster in Ethiopia seriously enough to continue to act on that basis. But then again, may be his operatives – his top brass included – do not share his claims after all, which brings us to the issue of Shaebia’s [the Eritrean ruling party] obvious hesitance to resort to direct armed confrontation with Ethiopia.
That has nothing – literally nothing – to do with a change of heart on President Isaias’ part. Far from that. In fact, what prevented him from taking that gamble is the stark realization that the regime would not be able to live another day after such a move. While the leadership in Asmara has a penchant for costly adventures, it is entirely difficult to imagine that they would go for a certain suicide. It is as simple as that. War will never be a rewarding bargain for the regime in Asmara. And, this has nothing to do with any change of heart on their part. It is mere survival instinct fully at work.
Second point, if by ‘not taking advantage’ you are referring to the total black out in the Eritrean media about the passing of Prime Minister Meles, you are looking for answers in the wrong place. I know the parallel is unfair but the Eritrean media did not mention the Arab uprisings either, including of course the gruesome killing of his comrade-in-arms from Libya. At the risk of sounding cynical, this [the reason for the media blackout] must be more psychological in the sense that the Eritrean leader does not want to be reminded of his own mortality than being any sign of magnanimity.
But particularly in this case, there must have been far more important political considerations than just denial. If indeed Prime Minister Meles’s “ruthless dictatorship” was the only difference between Ethiopia’s surface stability and its utter disintegration, as President Isaias has long tried to convince the world, then he would have a field day dismantling the country at a snap of a finger. After all, this has for quite so long been President Isaias’ stock-in-trade in leadership. It would not therefore have been entirely surprising if the regime – even if secretly – had entertained the thought of putting its long-time wish into action. Only one thing seemed to be the problem: the leadership in Asmara knew well that there was more to Ethiopia’s capability to neutralize the regime’s threat than the mere presence of Prime Minister Meles, namely the strong and vibrant society that Ethiopia has become under his leadership.
Openly gloating over the passing of Prime Minister Meles as the opportune moment to deal a mortal blow to the Ethiopian State would then have the undesirable consequence of creating an unrealistic expectation on the part of the regime’s ardent followers who have always flaunted their stubborn wish to settle scores with EPRDF and do so in a manner that will ‘teach’ their Southern neighbors a lesson. As was often the case during the last Ethio-Eritrean war, the regime was often launching costly offensives, even when it was patently clear that even a modicum of victory was beyond the pale, simply because angry supporters in the [Eritrean] diaspora needed ‘some kind of victory’ in order to keep their contrived sense of superiority alive. There are still some die-hard elements whose notion of Eritrean invincibility has dangerously morphed into a vicious Ethiophobic crusade.
So, to hype the news of Prime Minister Meles’ death as a golden opportunity would have the rather unwholesome consequence of emboldening the die-hard Ethiophobes in the regime and few of their supporters abroad to call for one more push. But the regime in Asmara knows better. Ethiopia has become far more stable and stronger under the wise leadership of Prime Minister Meles and he has left behind a system that can and does operate as good even after his untimely and tragic death. To call attention to that reality without an even remotely realistic chance of achieving even a modicum of victory would only expose the regime’s vulnerability not externally, – it already is – but more importantly, domestically. This is called survival instinct, not a change of heart. There is a yawning gulf between the two.
Daniel Berhane: I thank you on the behalf of readers for honoring this blog with your insights, hope you will be available for an extended interview next time.
Bio: According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website:
Ato Getachew Reda Kahsay took up the position of Director-General of the Public Diplomacy and Communications Directorate-General in August 2010(?). He had previously been Director of the Media Communications department and from 2008, an advisor in the Ministry, writing for the Ministry’s online publication ‘A Week in the Horn’, preparing speeches and documents. Before joining the Ministry, Ato Getachew was a lecturer in law at Mekelle University from July 1998 – March 2008. He was Director of the Mekelle University Legal Aid Center in 2005-6 and a visiting researcher at the University of Ghent, in Belgium in 2004.
Ato Getachew was born in June 1974 and took his LLB degree at Addis Ababa University, Faculty of Law, and an LLM at the University of Alabama School of Law, Tuscaloosa.
I have learnt that he has recently been appointed as Press and Publicity State Minister at the Office of the Prime Minister.
Nonetheless, Getachew Reda gave this interview in his private capacity.
Please check the archives for more on the issues raised above.
* This interview is part of the “Post-Meles 2012″ Special Edition of this blog.